Quaker name and Quaker fame
Do not a Quaker make,
But leaving all the choice to God
What paths to shun or take.
— given to me as I woke this morning.
Quaker name and Quaker fame
Do not a Quaker make,
But leaving all the choice to God
What paths to shun or take.
— given to me as I woke this morning.
To all Friends everywhere,
We must decrease, and Christ increase.
All power is His in heaven and earth, but He will force no entry into an unwilling heart, and if we leave Him standing outside on our day of visitation, we slight Him to our own impoverishment and hurt.
He stands at the door and knocks now. Why do we hesitate? It may be that we fear diminishment, for we’ve all been promised comfort and security by the world, and we don’t want to risk the loss of it. It may be that we cherish individual ambitions, for we’ve been taught since infancy to compete for the world’s honors, and to withdraw from the contest too much resembles death in our eyes. It may be that we live in artificially heightened opinions of our own powers, rights and agency, and shrink from the possible realization that the self we so worship is but a mask, a shadow, a fiction. Of old, Christ Jesus prophesied that that which is done in secret or whispered in the ear would be shouted from the housetops, and we all have lies, tender spots, grudges, guilts, sexual kinks, shameful memories and outright sins that we dread having the whole world know about. There are so many reasons to pretend that we don’t hear that knock at the door! But none of them are good reasons, because they all involve choosing unreality over reality; and all such choices are known to end in unhappiness.
The Knocker at the door, then, is the Light that will show us who and what we are. But two things may distract us from opening to let Him in. One is our membership in a club of nice folks who also don’t answer the door. The other is our involvement in a righteous cause too important to be distracted from. The Religious Society of Friends, unfortunately, may provide us with both of these excuses.
But fortunately, the Religious Society of Friends is not really a nice folks’ club, but a people of God, bound to God by a covenant. Oh, we’ve done our best to forget the Quaker covenant announced to and through Francis Howgill on 3/28/1662. Many who know of it may regard it as a mere historical curiosity, not relevant today, though Howgill’s contemporaries took it seriously enough; his account is accessible online in William Sewel’s History of the rise, increase, and progress, of the Christian people called Quakers (p.403 of 3rd ed., 1728). But the real question, Friend reader, is: what does thy own heart say about its genuineness? If it was a real communication from the living God, then God may at any moment shake our meeting houses to their foundations, and hold us each answerable for that covenant today.
As for our righteous causes, God may prosper or frustrate them as God thinks best, but it will surely be only a matter of time before we’re shown the folly of deploying on the battlefield before consulting the General.
Let’s waste no time, Friends, in opening the door.
This coming Saturday, 12/13/14, is being widely promoted as a “Day of Anger.” Because many of our institutions seem to be in the hands of liars, hypocrites, the selfish and the cruel, there is much to be angry about in this country, as throughout the world. Perhaps many of us, when next called for jury duty, will find reason to tell the judge, as I do, “I have no faith in this justice system to do justice, nor in this correctional system to correct.” Fortunately, however, there is an all-seeing and almighty God, who has established an infallible justice system and a perfect correctional system.
But while we wait for these to do their work, we have a choice before us: to let anger tempt us to be hurtful, or to forgive. The Buddha warns us that if we give into such a temptation, suffering will follow us “as the cart-wheel follows the hoof of the draft-ox” (Dhammapada, 1). Jesus warns us that if we don’t forgive others their trespasses against us, neither will God forgive us our own (Matthew 6:15) – and this, not because our all-merciful God, whose very nature is Love, wants to withhold forgiveness, but because our blocking the outflow of forgiveness from our own hearts also blocks the inflow of it, just as breaking a wire in an appliance stops the flow of electric current and disables the appliance from doing what it was made to do.
Jesus modeled God’s forgiveness by forgiving even His own betrayers and murderers as He hung dying on the cross (Luke 23:34); so did His follower Stephen (Acts 7:60), setting a pattern for all persons of good will to follow. We should make every effort to follow this example, not for the selfish reason that we’re hoping for a personal heavenly reward (in which case we may not deserve that reward), but out of compassion for all those merciless, fear-driven human hearts responsible for police violence against persons of color, for CIA torture of political suspects, for sins against the planetary ecosystem, for government coverups and perversions of justice everywhere. These souls are our brothers and sisters, human broken appliances in need of repair. If we can’t wish for their recovery and salvation, we can’t fairly wish for our own; without the repair of our own unforgiving hearts, we can only expect to wind up in the same junkyard.
All this is not to say that we shouldn’t rebuke evildoers; the all-important question is what spirit we rebuke them in: with intent to hurt them or intent to heal.
The Book of Revelation describes, in symbolic form, times of trouble yet to come, when disorders of nature will threaten men and women with fearsome sufferings, not unlike the way our scientists expect them to do shortly. In an ironic twist, the narrator announces that a lion will step in to save the day, but the heralded “lion” that appears turns out to be a lamb (Rev. 5:6), symbolic of Jesus Christ. The action then heats up: war, famine, mass death, a great earthquake, and the darkening of the skies. Terrified, the rich and powerful flee to their bunkers in the mountains, where they call to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us, and hide us from the wrath of the Lamb!” (Rev. 6:16.) What, the wrath of the Lamb? Only the insane would be afraid of the wrath of a lamb! Only the insane… or those so deeply guilty, and so unforgiving in their own hearts, that when their hopes of controlling the situation vanish, they can only expect to be treated as unfeelingly as they have treated others; and that expectation is their own self-condemnation. As the Gospel of John (3:19-20) puts it: “This is the condemnation: that men loved the darkness rather than the Light… for everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”
Earlier I expressed my trust that God’s correctional system is perfect: by which I mean that every soul gets corrected and healed, and in the end none are lost. But the thought of guilty and violent souls, before the end of that process, calling for mountains and rocks to fall on them – that’s enough to turn my Day of Anger into a Day of Tears: tears not only for the victims of racist or other police brutality, but for the perpetrators themselves. I could wish such self-inflicted cruelty on no one; and neither, I think, could the loving Creator that I worship.
Ecclesiastes 3:14 reads, in the Authorized or King James Version (1611),
I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.
The thoroughly Bible-literate contemporary readers of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets (1633) would therefore have recognized that God’s answer to Donne’s opening question must obviously be, “No; none of My works decay; check your Bible.”
But even if we share the faith of those 17th-century believers, we nonetheless, like Donne, often feel the dreadful need of repair, and of God’s magnetism to draw our iron hearts back upward toward their Maker:
Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it t’wards hell doth weigh;
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour my self I can sustain;
Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart.
If you sit in prayer today and find distracting thoughts pulling you away from the One you’re trying to worship, try “Do Thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart” as the corrective thought to bring you back to center. Or just “Thou,” for short. It helps to remember that God wants you at least as much as you want God!
Today’s title “The Daily Nothing” came to me in the dream I awoke from: under that title, a wise old woman was publishing daily short reminders of the unchanging Truth that has nothing to do with the things of the world that change and cause us distress, neither our own “feeble flesh” nor the evils of our time, nor our impossibly long to-do lists. How important it is to make time for Nothing! To put aside our own thoughts and our own wills, to sit still in that Daily Nothing and let God do what God will with us, even if God sees fit to do Nothing with us!
I woke up from a horrifying dream.
I was in a college library, smoking the stub of a joint in a secluded aisle. Fearing that others might smell marijuana smoke and come looking, I realized that I’d better conceal my little roach in my cupped hand and leave the library quickly. I hurried out the glass doors and onto the deserted twilit lawn. And then I realized that I hadn’t done my morning devotions, but had chosen to blow off greeting my God and Savior, my very Life, so that I could get stoned instead. How remorseful that made me, and how ashamed! And this choice that I’d made was no simple mistake that I could repent and ask forgiveness for, but one that had left me, at least for the moment, unfit to approach God at all, for I had just poisoned my mind with a drug that would leave me incapable of worship or focused concentration of any kind. As despair struck me, I snapped awake.
I won’t waste the reader’s time telling about my college years, now roughly half a century in the past, which provided the symbolic imagery for this dream and taught me the effects of marijuana on my own brain. I’d rather direct the reader’s attention to the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30; Luke 13:28; in my dream, the lawn outside the library), and the scriptural warnings against “finding no place of repentance, though we seek it carefully with tears” (Hebrews 12:17; so also in Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31). Shakespeare gives us a memorable portrait of a sinner who kneels, but cannot pray, in King Claudius (Hamlet, III.iii). But perhaps my readers have their own memories of being in such a case. It’s not that God won’t gladly hear prayers from the most hopeless of sinners in the most hopeless of positions! But there are things we do, on our side, to disable our own access to God.
Now I’ve been proclaiming, with joy, a God who forgives everything, heralded by a prophet, God’s unique son Jesus, who forgave even His own murderers, and convincingly claimed that His Heavenly Father was of the same character (John 14:7-11). But I fear I haven’t been paying sufficient attention to the predicament of the soul who puts herself beyond this wonderful universal forgiveness, locks herself out, and throws away the key. God does not damn us; we damn ourselves (John 3:19-20). This is not God’s will for us! God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11); God intends a universal reconciliation (Colossians 1:20)! God’s nature is love (1 John 4:8) and love wishes only good to every being (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
Moreover, God tells us (please forgive the masculine pronoun, which I know limits the Limitless One) that there is nothing too hard for Him (Genesis 18:14, Jeremiah 32:27). Jesus tells of the good shepherd’s delight in rescuing the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7). But God, who created us with freedom of choice, can’t rescue a will that willfully refuses rescue. One must say “yes.” And we have ways of sealing our own mouths so that we can’t say “yes.” Adrienne von Speyr (in The Letter to the Colossians, commenting on Colossians 3:17) observes: “That is the most serious thing about sin: that, once chosen, it remains constant and sticks to the sinner. Unless help comes from outside, from above, unless he receives grace, man cannot get rid of it.”
I held the details of my dream in worship, and the significance of the act of smoking pot in a college library grew on me: what is a college library but a place where a student goes to acquire knowledge for the sake of understanding, and understanding for the sake of wisdom? In its essence it’s a temple for lovers of Wisdom, the bride of Love. But if one loves merely the empty mental pleasures that smoldering cannabis induces, or loves knowledge for purposes contrary to wisdom and love (say, the power to dominate, exploit, impress or seduce people), then one is not only an impostor with no business in the temple of Wisdom but a fire-hazard dangerous to its treasures. They and you don’t belong together. For your own sake it’s best to get out of the treasury of knowledge before the knowledge itself turns hurtful to you, as our misguided civilization is now starting to discover – but that’s another topic.
For the topic at hand is love: we’re given the Great Commandment to love God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourself (Matthew 22:37-40), as God loves us. When we love things incompatible with the love of God and the neighbor, like our own pleasure and profit, our own safety, our own preeminence and good name, or the secret compartment we hide our lies in, then, and to the extent of these loves, we disable our own access to God. What foolishness! And yet we all do it, at least until we ask to have our hearts washed clean of loves for lifeless idols. But that’s the easiest and simplest thing to ask for!
So take this opportunity to pray with me: Lord God, Divine Mother, Higher Power, whatever You wish us to call You, show us the true nature of the objects we’ve given our love to; help us discern rightly what deserves our love, and what does not; give us hearts willing to love the good and the worthy; and then set them on fire with love! This we ask in Jesus’ name, who promised (John 14:14), “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” Amen.
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/whatgodwantsforyourlife/2014/10/when-mystery-becomes-product-the-case-of-general-theological-seminary/ The link is to a blog by Frederick William Schmidt about the conflict at General Theological Seminary in New York City. In recent weeks, from what I can make out on the Quaker sidelines, several faculty members registered complaints with the Board of Trustees about the dean. Matters got to a point where eight faculty members wrote to the trustees saying that they would stop teaching until matters were resolved. The trustees took this as a letter of resignation from the eight faculty members, accepted it as such, and relieved the eight of their positions on the faculty. The eight faculty members said it was never meant as a resignation. Questions about the right to organize, the right to strike, freedom of speech, and academic freedom are swirling around.
On Friday, October 17, the trustees reaffirmed that the dean was the dean they wanted and the eight faculty members could apply for provisional reinstatement on an individual basis—which I’m told is a classic union-busting technique. I’m posting about this on Among Friends because there are things in Schmidt’s blog and in the comments on his blog that got me thinking about Quaker life and New York Yearly Meeting. For example, Schmidt says that seminaries were created by the Council of Trent to be “seedbeds.”
“Over time, seminaries have become something very different. They are no longer seedbeds, they are dispensaries, sources of information, places where commodities are sold, factories. . . . And, now, as numbers and money begin to become acute issues for seminaries, boards and seminary leaders without any deep sympathy for that seedbed model are beginning to ask themselves, ‘How can we distribute this information and collect tuition for it in a more efficient fashion?'”
In the last paragraph of his post, Schmidt talks about mystery— “Therein lies the message to the seminaries left standing: Consider your purpose. If you are simply dispensing information, your days are numbered. The product can be codified, recorded, and dispensed. A seedbed is a different matter. It is baptism into a mystery – an experience of God – a relationship with God and those who have been touched by the Divine. Mystery is not something that is simply learned, it is absorbed and the few that choose to offer that gift have a future. For those that don’t offer that mystery, there isn’t one.”
Those last two sentences opened to me why effective Quaker religious education is so difficult. How do you teach a mystery? How do you teach the mystery that is Quaker meeting for worship? Schmidt’s words help explain to me why we leave so much to the notorious Quaker ‘process of osmosis.’ Maybe it’s not such a bad thing. But is there a way to engage people in that osmotic process more effectively in our monthly meetings?
I got more explanations—these about yearly meeting life—as I read the comments on Schmidt’s blog. In one by Roy Herndon Smith, I found this— “As Bernard Brandon Scott observes, in any age, the dominant institution in society becomes the model for churches and church-related institutions. In sixteenth-century Europe, the feudal court was the model for the church. In twenty-first century America, the corporation is the model.”
And there we are: the ‘priorities’ models of marketing that New York and Philadelphia yearly meetings (are there others?) adopted this summer. To adapt Schmidt’s quote, I heard my yearly meeting asking of itself: ‘How can we . . . collect [money] in a more efficient fashion?’”
Early Friends witnessed against the feudal court–model of the church and “the dominant institution” of society. Friends today are falling nicely into step with the wisdom to be found in the life of the successful capitalist corporation. In another comment, I learned about Juergen Habermas from someone going by his Twitter handle of frharry. Frharry has a somewhat heavy style that needs a little ear-of-the-heart translating. Bear with it—
“Juergen Habermas spoke of the colonization of the lifeworld by its business quadrant as early as the 1980s. With the political quadrant neutralized, business construction of the lifeworld based in business values of profit and the commodification of all aspects of that world (including its human “resources”) no longer had any checks. As a result, all social institutions and cultural values become colonized, taking on business values and goals. Education becomes knowledge fluency, higher education becomes job training, students become consumers. It is an impoverishment of the lifeworld that ironically sells itself to the public as the best of possible worlds, a la Pangloss. Most of the time we are so voluntarily distracted that we don’t notice.”
I lift up for your attention the concept of becoming colonized, taking on business values and goals.
The mention of Pangloss with its reference to Voltaire’s Candide was especially meaningful to me. As part of the summer’s Priorities business, New York Yearly Meeting Friends are being urged to contribute to the Make Our Garden Grow web page: http://www.nyym.org/?q=MakeOurGardenGrow
I keep wanting to post the Leonard Bernstein–Stephen Sondheim song there.
Hello, this is Elizabeth. I haven’t posted on this blog for years, but here I am. A lot of things have wanted to be written for quite a while, but I haven’t given them their way until now. Here’s one of them.
My earlier theological history tended to be on the vague side. That’s not always a bad thing. My father was a theologian who talked himself up, down, and around in circles, with (so far as I can see) the primary objective of proving himself Not Wrong. That, I came to recognize, is even more important than Being Right. Being right, hedging bets, or being noncommittal are all fine, because nobody can point at you and laugh at you for Being Wrong. Naturally, I grew up with similar biases.
I couldn’t “believe in God” for a long time when I was young, although we’d been taught to as children. I thought believing meant “thinking something was factually true.” I couldn’t believe the Bible’s origin stories or the idea of a bigger and better dad in the sky called Our Father. I couldn’t inflate the image of my father into a model for something to worship (though I’m sure he would have liked me to). I couldn’t believe in a lot of the words people said about God.
What started to soften that stance was music. I was a violinist and a choral singer. In the latter capacity I experienced a lot of sacred music from the inside. I detested the soupy, sappy, sentimental kind (and generally still do), but I also had the chance to sing great music under the direction of a good choral conductor in high school and a superb one (Iva Dee Hiatt) in college.
The thing is, I didn’t agree with the words, but from my place in the midst of the music I knew that in the best of it the whole thing, the music and words together, were True. They were about something absolutely real that couldn’t be denied, but neither could it be expressed with words alone. (Music without words could be True in a similar way.)
I came to admit that the True Thing I was experiencing had something to do with God that was closer and more real to me than anything anyone had ever said about God. It was akin to my awe at the beauty of nature, although not identical.
I continued to hedge my bets for a while but became increasingly comfortable with calling that True Thing God. And once I’d committed myself to that, my experience of God became deeper and broader and more certain. It’s been quite a few years now since I would have said I wasn’t sure if God existed. God is sure and certain, and God’s seeds are growing in me all the time.
I’d be as unwilling as ever to write a Credo that defines what I “think” about God, or lays out a series of beliefs that others must agree to if they are to share my faith. I do sometimes find it hard to communicate with people who rattle off questions at me designed to determine whether I meet their criteria as a believer. Even my beloved John has a more literalistic view of God than I have, although thankfully our differences are a matter of dialogue and mutual querying rather than trying to convince each other that we’re Right.
Some would say my theology is still vague, and by their standards it may be. But I know God. I have no doubts at all that God is real, even if undefinable. I’m immensely grateful that God snuck up behind me and bypassed all those theology words and yes/no questions. God knew that the music, the love, the moon and the trees and the water all orange and purple in the sunset, would find the place in me that the words couldn’t reach.
And I know I am growing into a better and better person (still not necessarily all that good, but much better than I once was) because of the God I know. I have that most precious of things, a place to stand.
And now, yes, there are words that speak to that same deep place: Holy, holy, holy. Dona nobis pacem. Et lux perpetua luceat eis. Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?…when the morning stars sang together, and all the children of God shouted for joy? Even though I walk in a dark and dreary land, there is nothing that can shake me — She has said She won’t forsake me — I’m in Her hand. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish thou the work of our hands upon us.
And the word became flesh, and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.
To be continued.
And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. – Luke 24:47 (AV)
What Quakers believe about anything is, for better or for worse, conditioned by what they’ll allow themselves to believe. Those of little faith may believe some of what they read in the newspaper, some of the time, while those of great faith may be working major “signs and wonders” to the glory of God. One thing Friends tend to agree on, though, is that we ought to speak from personal experience, and be able to answer affirmatively to the query, “Is it inwardly from God?” If it’s simply an opinion – early Friend George Fox wrote, “We own not opinions.” What follows, I believe, is inwardly from God.
According to the author of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus left his followers with a commission to preach, that is, to announce the availability of, a changed state of mind (metanoia or “repentance”) that would allow one to know oneself to be sinless: in other words, that one’s previously acknowledged sins had been dismissed, forgiven, and declared null and void. The original Greek reads metanoia eis aphesin hamartiōn, literally “repentance into remission of sins, so we know that Jesus didn’t intend us to think that “repentance” and “remission of sins” were two separate and independent gifts, but one thing that led directly into the other.
And yes, they are gifts: repentance isn’t something we can achieve by ourselves, any more than we can lift ourselves by our own bootstraps. As the first generation of Christians recognized (Acts 11:18), it comes to us as a gift from outside ourselves, or not at all. Otherwise there’d be a huge industry peddling repentance like a drug, and how-to-forgive-yourself books would be on every combat veteran’s Kindle. Churches would be fitness centers of the soul, where moms and dads would put in a half hour on the treadmill after work to sweat out the day’s lies, white-collar crimes and adulterous fantasies, then go home to the kids fresh as a daisy. Of course there are preachers who’ll exhort you to repent as if you could do it at will: but I, who had to “repent” of smoking seven times before I could stay quit, can tell them otherwise: it was granted me to quit smoking.
How would we know that we ourselves, or another person, are in a genuine state of repentance and not in a mere mood or delusion? For there are people that do dreadful things without feeling the least bit sinful about them; we call them psychopaths. But “by their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16-20). Jesus, in Luke 7:36-50, shows us the signs of a person who knows she’s been forgiven all her sins – she’s exuberant, loving, and generous, even to the point of letting herself look a little foolish: she weeps in public, she kisses Jesus’ feet. It’s a kind of behavior not easily counterfeited.
Moreover, repentant people who’ve experienced remission of sins should be able to describe how they know their sins were remitted. Since George Fox’s day, Quakers have been in the habit of asking claimants to religious truth, “What canst thou say?” I could answer you, for example, that I was sitting in meeting one day, obsessively berating myself for some past foolishness, when I heard an authoritative Voice in my mind say, “That sin is forgiven: put it away!” During another Quaker meeting I heard that Voice say “I will not let you fall into sin.” And there were other experiences, so that today I feel still temptable, but powerfully protected, and discouraged from worrying. But ask for your own convincing experience!
Luke records that remission of sins is to be preached in Jesus’ name, and it’s a fact that among North American Quakers today, some preach in Jesus’ name and some do not. Some might argue that, before Jesus’ time, the Buddha also taught a way to sinlessness that erases the karma and vāsanās of sin: of whether this way works I confess my ignorance, not having followed that path. I preach repentance and remission of sins in Jesus’ name for these reasons:
1. I’ve felt myself given “a mouth, and wisdom” (Luke 21:15) to do so by the Lord Jesus Himself, who has made me a member of Christ. In this work “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). This is a condition available to everyone, though it requires a kind of voluntary dying to one’s old ways.
2. Only in the ministry of Jesus, for the first time in known history, do we find an instruction to forgive everyone everything, modeled perfectly for us by the Teacher’s own behavior, coupled with a declaration that God our Creator is of the same all-forgiving spirit. It is extremely important for men and women to know this about God. But to know this about God, we must practice that all-forgiving spirit ourselves, and ask God’s help with it.
One thing Quakers are rightly known for is their truthfulness, and I would be less than truthful if I claimed or even implied that what I’ve written here is typical of contemporary Quaker thought. But I do hope to help make it so.
This is an unofficial, personal epistle from the sixth annual gathering of Christ-centered Friends in the Northeast, which took place over Labor Day Weekend. I started writing it from my bedroom on the last night of our stay at Powell House, intending to send it to everyone who’d expressed regret at not being able to attend, and also to everyone else who I thought would want to know how it had gone. I’ll be posting this letter on the blog “among Friends” to give it maximum circulation. Although I served as Clerk of the gathering’s planning group, let me repeat that this letter has no official status as a statement from the gathering or its planners, but is just what is on this one Friend’s heart to share with the world.
The theme for the gathering, “Abide in Me,” from Jesus’ Vine Sermon (John 15:4), was chosen last Winter. As our planning group worked on developing a program for the weekend over a series of conference calls, we became clear on two things: (1) that we’d be trying to relate our discussion to participants’ personal experiences of “dwelling in” or “being indwelt by” Christ the Vine, and (2) that we’d be flexible in our planning, not adopting a rigid schedule in advance, in order to let the Holy Spirit guide our sequence of activities as much as we could. I think that the interest in personal experiences (1) served to help me (and, I hope, others) stay focused on my living connection to Christ, avoiding airy notions or unprofitable light conversation during the weekend, and that the intentional flexibility of programming (2) was what allowed the two evening prayer sessions to happen. These proved to be the high points of my weekend.
We had twenty-five participants – fewer than in prior years when we’d met at Powell House. As often happens, some came late and some left early, but for most of the programmed events we had about twenty-two. Four came from the New England Yearly Meeting area, two from elsewhere, and the rest from the New York Yearly Meeting area. Each, on arrival, got a printed sheet with John 15:1-11 on it, in the New Revised Standard Version. Sixth-day evening was largely given over to dinner, introductions and waiting worship. The vocal ministry we heard, I thought, was reflective of the concerns we were bringing with us – like “are we called to be Christian Quakers or to think of ourselves as Quaker Christians?”
On Seventh-day morning we considered the simple phrase “Abide in Me” in plenary session, then proceeded into an hour and a half of waiting worship. There was considerable vocal ministry, but none arresting, I thought, until the three messages that came right at the end. The Friend who’d suggested the “Abide in Me” theme spoke of having invited Jesus Christ to abide in him, and three times being asked, “Are you sure you want this?” The last Friend to give ministry broke into deep vocal prayer that seemed to expose his very heart. I could now be optimistic that the Holy Spirit was bringing us closer.
After lunch we labored. We discussed the first eleven verses of the Vine Sermon in small groups (“Where does the text touch your life now? Was there a time in your life when this ‘abiding’ was harder?”), and then in another plenary session. There at least one Friend expressed fear of the possibility of being found to be an “unfruitful branch” and cast into the fire. Another argued for the positive, hopeful thrust of the Vine Sermon as a whole, and against the existence of a God who might damn anyone. A third spoke of his earlier life as a liar, seducer, thief and self-glorifier, a life and character that he gladly surrendered to be trashed as an unfruitful branch after he’d found himself given a new, repentant heart and a new life in Christ – a gamut of personal experience that made both the promising and the threatening aspects of the “vine” metaphor apt without implying any expectation of a condemnation of any sentient being to everlasting fire. Both fear of God and trust in God were displayed among us, but by God’s grace we weren’t being polarized into believers in hell and disbelievers in hell, but rather gathered, I’d like to think, as a body of God-fearing, God-trusting God-lovers who could all speak to something in one another’s souls. And God – God was God. God loved us, and knew best what to do with us.
That evening we broke into prayer-groups of five or six each. My group quickly went deep into confessions of personal need and heartfelt concern for loved ones. Three of us dropped to our knees on one side of the parlor coffee table and joined hands. One was trembling as she prayed, and remained trembling. Aware of the intensity of others’ experience, I said “Amen” to every petition I heard, but felt strangely cool and neutral inwardly myself, until, at the end, I began to speak for my own yearnings, praying first for my own immediate family and then, as I warmed inwardly, for the whole fear-driven, war-torn, ignorance-darkened world.
Seventh-day night saw an “extracurricular” gathering in the library to discuss discipleship and disciple-making. That deserves a separate letter, and so I’ll pass over it in this report; perhaps you’ll hear about it from someone else.
In First-day morning’s meeting for worship, my wife Elizabeth broke into quaking, a first for her, as she gave vocal ministry on the topic of the Word made flesh, in Christ and in our deeds. Another Friend, bidden by the Holy Spirit, prayed in her native language, unfamiliar to the rest of us, for an ailing family member. I sensed a divine covering – but then, not every message seemed Spirit-led, and the meeting “crumbled” – I don’t know how else to describe it – as Friends broke into speaking a second time in a single meeting, addressing one another by name, and making attempts to “fix” a situation gone awry. We’d started to rise, then stumbled and fallen into a slight, but temporary, disorder. Here we broke for lunch and then several hours of free time.
A late-afternoon small-group exercise focused on “pruning the branches” seemed to bring rich insights. The first four verses of John 15 were slowly read aloud, lectio-divina style, and we considered the pruning that had been done to ourselves – or that we saw as needing to be done. A property-owner new to pruning apple trees and grapevines told of being taught that good pruning is severe pruning, and that fruit trees send shoots upward, but orchard-keepers want them to grow mostly outward and sideways. Another Friend shared the insight that God does not prune once, but continues to prune, giving us just enough stress at any one time as we can take. Another Friend reminded us of our importance to the ongoing work of Christ by observing that the Vine only produces fruit through its branches. One countered our habit of thinking of ourselves solely as individuals by warning that if we neglect our daily practice, we impoverish our meeting. And I? I saw much that I could be pruned of, and found myself welcoming the shears. They might scare me as they grew closer, but I trusted the Lord to give me whatever courage I might need.
The planning group decided that the best thing we could do with the evening ahead of us would be to have prayer-groups again. This time we split into one group of eight and another of ten. My group, the smaller one, moved off to the parlor. I knelt and prayed aloud that the Lord would gather us, and returned to my seat.
Jim, a former monk, spoke next: “Lord, I offer up this prayer of Saint Ignatius:
Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more. Amen.”
Jim recalls adding, after Ignatius’s original “my memory [and] my understanding,” “my intuition,” “my imagination,” and “my emotions.” In all, it was quite a comprehensive list, and I prayed to be “naughted” – a Fourteenth-Century term I’d learned from reading Julian of Norwich – in every aspect of my personal experience. I noticed my random thoughts with neither eagerness nor revulsion, recalled that I’d surrendered them to God, and then grew sleepy as the silence lengthened. And then the thought came: I can’t let myself sleep! This prayer group is going to fail if I don’t stay alert! And with that, I knelt again and stayed kneeling, waiting for something… something from within or without.
Then Roger, from across the table, asked whether he could put hands on my shoulders. “Please do,” I answered.
Roger’s hands on my shoulders were soon joined by Jim’s hands on my head. And then Jim started to chant the plainsong Salve Regina in his serene old voice. He was calling on the Virgin Mary for help. I was grateful. I rarely think of asking her or any other holy person for help, punctilious monotheist that I am, although I’ve sensed her presence alongside me in prayer once or twice before. With Mary and Jesus invoked, Elizabeth at my side, Roger and Jim touching me, and other loving presences around the table, I felt sweetly and solemnly held. There was a little pulsing of energy in the field around my crown, something that I sometimes take as a sign of a visitation by the Holy Spirit.
Jim’s voice sang on: Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes, in hac lacrimarum valle. I understood the Latin: To thee we sigh, groaning and weeping in this valley of tears. It may have been that the thought came to me in an unfamiliar language, sneaking up on my emotions from beneath, that brought tears into my chest, or it may have been that they were sung rather than spoken: but there those tears were, and I sensed I was ready to pray from them, though I didn’t know where it would lead. When Jim was done singing, I spoke again, in tears that grew to a torrent of sobbing:
“Heavenly Father, Divine Mother, Holy Spirit, Lord Jesus: we are in trouble, bigger trouble than we know: but You know. We, Your children, are fallen, fallen away from You to where we can’t see or feel You, and we’re behaving in a way that’s destroying the earth before our own eyes. We see it, but we can’t stop ourselves. And we’re doing it because we’re in bondage to a great lie. All of us! The oppressors and the oppressed alike, we’ve put ourselves in bondage, we’ve invited the Father of Lies to be our master, and we can’t see it! We’ve enslaved ourselves to habits, cultures, world-views, organizations, and insane loyalties to false gods that are now working together to destroy all life on this planet, with war, with racism and hatred, with deceit and denial, with runaway overconsumption of things that can’t satisfy, and yet we keep guzzling them down to fill our emptiness! Our destruction of the environment is merely an outward sign of our inward sickness! – and because it’s not quite burning us up quite yet, we’re able to keep ourselves blind to the fact, or we look to scapegoating and mutual blaming as a solution, which will prove to be no solution, because the problem is us! Because it’s we who’ve wandered away from the good way that was Your holy will, which was what was best for all creation and every creature in it. It was we who thought that we might create a better reality, and enjoy a better freedom, if we each pursued a separate will and served ourselves instead of one another! – which was madness, but we called it wisdom, and we refused to listen to Your guidance, guidance that would call us back to serving the One Good Will and so restoring the creation to health! And now we’re stuck in this bondage, unable to get out of it so long as we’re in denial of it, shackled into our chains while the world around us catches fire and all around us is burning! Help us, Lord! In Jesus’ holy name, help us! Amen!”
Emptied at last of tears and words, I rose from my knees with Elizabeth’s help and returned to my seat, At last, I thought, I’d felt, on an emotional level, the enormity of the sin, the madness, the all-consuming evil that I’d spent the last month writing about.
After a pause, Emily spoke from the other side of Jim: “Thank God for John, because when I look at the world I see love, and happiness, and people smiling at one another! And I know that his vision is true, but I know that my vision is also true!”
It was a wonderful, healing affirmation of what I’d been carrying. What could I feel but gratitude? And I knew that her sunnier vision of this human world was also true, and needed to be expressed, too – and this was why both of us were needed.
On Second-day morning, the planning group decided that we’d done all we were meant to with the text of John 15, and we did some threshing by geographical divisions – putting Friends from New Paltz on southward into one room and Friends to the North, East, and West of that into another, to discuss possibilities of regional networks and gatherings. We followed that with an hour of waiting worship, and then a business session to decide whether we’d try to create a seventh Northeastern Christ-centered Friends’ gathering, or merely regional gatherings – or what.
During the waiting worship, a Friend confessed to having held back a message on the previous day. He recited from Revelation 2:1-5: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works;” our original love for God having cooled, we can no longer do the works that that love once inspired: we must return to the heights we fell from.
In the brief business session that followed, we saw that there lacked the energy to plan for another Labor Day Weekend gathering in 2015. A Friend from downstate announced that they’d be hosting front-lawn barbecues on all the three-day weekends of the next Summer. Another Friend informed us that Quaker Spring would be gathering next Sixth Month (6/26-7/1) at Oakwood School in Poughkeepsie, and because our gathering would draw from much the same population and resources, he suggested that we think of Tenth or Eleventh Month as a better time for us to re-gather than Labor Day Weekend. With that in mind, we released Powell House from having to hold Labor Day Weekend 2015 open for us on its calendar, though further discernment may cause us to revisit the possibility of gathering on Labor Day Weekend. We created a Discernment Committee to consider possible dates and places for our re-gathering. Once we’ve had our first conference call, the committee should report back to Friends.
Our business concluded, we went to lunch, had last conversations and prayer-gatherings, and then went our separate ways.
In friendship to you all,
You and I know that these could be our last years on earth, and our children’s too. We’ve known since the 1970s that our greenhouse gas production is driving climate change. The nightmare sequels, we now know, may include global famine from cropland desertification and collapse of the marine food chain as CO2 sours the seas. To their credit, many men and women of good will are responding by innovating, protesting, going off-grid and eating more simply. Protest actions against a major coal-fired power plant have led to plans for its closure. But the mitigations put in place have consistently seemed too little, too late, and profiteers, enabled by an “anything goes” culture that cares little about truth-telling, are still generating PR claims that natural gas and plutonium are “green,” and elected officials are buying it. Global demand for an ever-higher standard of living, along with capital’s need to milk that demand for ever-higher levels of corporate profit and power, still trump any sustained and coordinated effort to intervene for the common good. Can a People’s Climate March hope to change this? Can any raising of voices or massing of numbers?
A man-made doomsday
How shall we name the situation? There are too many people on the planet saying Me first, or groups of people saying Us first. We’re choking on human selfishness. What’s looming ahead of us is a man-made doomsday attributable entirely to human greed, lying, willed inattention – let’s call it by its right name: human evil. And it’s not just the evil of bankers, fossil-fuel CEOs, and their hirelings in government that we’re looking at, but a spiritual sickness we all share: for we all try to tilt reality in our own favor, sometimes hiding the truth to protect our own skin, often turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. If we stand on moral ground no higher than the “culprits” of climate change, dare we hope to change their ways?
Another way of seeing the situation
But this scenario is built around fear, and the expectation of scarcity and death.
Scarcity and death are not God’s will for us, as the witness of God in your own heart will tell you if you will listen for it. The scriptural testimonies of humans who have known the heart of our Creator confirm this: in Isaiah 45:18, God declares that God created the world “not in vain, but to be inhabited.” The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon makes the amazing assertion that God “did not create death, but the ungodly, with their hands and their words, drew death to them” (Wisdom 1:13-16), and the prophet Ezekiel records God as saying, “I have no pleasure in the death of him that dies” (Ez. 18:32, 33:11). In the Sermon of the Good Shepherd, Jesus declares, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10), contrasting His role with that of the sheep-rustler whose work is only to destroy. Jesus taught that it was God’s will not to judge and condemn, but only to forgive and heal, and Jesus modeled this divine love by laying down His life for souls gone astray, forgiving even His own murderers. How perfectly or imperfectly the Jesus of scripture reflects the actual character of the God who gave you life and consciousness, again, is something you can ask the witness of God in your own heart. Expect an answer.
The climate crisis will not be overcome by forcing or persuading the “sheep-rustlers” to stop destroying the environment. Neither is there any good done by punishing, condemning or scapegoating them, not even in your fantasies, for “with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged” (Matt. 7:2), and Jesus also taught that refusal to forgive our enemies keeps us unable to receive God’s forgiveness (Matt. 6:14-15).
Forgive and be forgiven
But there is a larger point to be made about forgiveness: it is the revolutionary principle that can change the world. It is the only revolutionary principle that can change the world. The social, economic and political world that is now cooking itself with greenhouse gases is one that runs on the principle of scapegoating: that is, morally imperfect persons with injured consciences (that’s all of us) seek the healing of their injured consciences by imputing evil to other people and then, to the best of their ability, driving those others out of society. This is the origin of war, slavery, the subjugation of women and countless other evils. Like an addictive drug, scapegoating numbs the pangs of conscience, but does not heal the injury. But extending universal forgiveness does, and the empowerment that comes with being healed and receiving divine forgiveness knows no limits.
Let us try, then, what love can do. Forgiveness is an act of will, not a matter of having the right feelings; anyone can do it. It does not require reconciliation with people who have hurt us, and whom we would rather have nothing more to do with. It asks of us only that we make the effort to wish them the same eternal happiness we would wish for ourselves.